Innovative TherapyJuly 25, 2018

How Carnoustie is using golf to help awaken memories

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Tiger Woods leading on the back nine on Sunday of a major. Jordan Spieth trying to will his way to a second straight claret jug. And, of course, the Champion Golfer of the Year Francesco Molinari. This year’s Open Championship provided a treasure trove of memories that won’t soon be forgotten. But it’s the awakening of golf memories that are helping change lives in the coastal town hard against the North Sea.

On the first Thursday of every month, a group of about 15 locals meet at the sparkling new golf center at the Carnoustie Golf Links. Most are in their 70s, or older, and they spend the day swapping stories, reminiscing about old photos, hitting balls on simulators or even playing ‘The Nestie,’ a short six-hole par-3 course on the old first fairway of the property’s Buddon Links course. If it sounds like a lot of clubs in many ways, it is. Golf, after all, is part of the soil in the Angus community. But there’s something quite different about this bunch.

According to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people around the world suffer from some form of dementia, with nearly 10 million new cases popping up every year. Alzheimer's makes up between 60 and 70 percent of those cases. Symptoms of the debilitating condition include deterioration in memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to perform normal everyday tasks.

Enter the Carnoustie Golf Memories Project.

Scotland is among the world leaders in reminiscence therapy, which uses written or oral (or both) life histories to improve psychological well-being, according to the American Psychological Association, for those suffering from memory loss or dementia. Though it has been around since the 1960s, the therapeutic intervention has gained traction in more recent years with studies showing significant cognitive improvements as well as benefits to self esteem. Part of the overall Golf Memories Project and in turn part of the broader Sports Heritage Scotland network, the Carnoustie group uses golf to help those living with dementia and memory loss. Soccer, cricket, curling and rugby are among other sports involved as well, but golf groups are starting to spring up across the country as a way to help those dealing with the crippling effects.

“People always think when there’s a diagnosis there’s an end of life,” says Lorraine Young, a former social worker whose own father suffered from dementia and one of the chief voices for the project in Carnoustie. “What we’re saying is absolutely not. You hear about life beginning at 40 and different ages and we’re saying it’s a different life but life will begin for you. There’s a lot of fun and lots of things you can do and helping people to stop become isolated and become integrated back into the community. And if you live in a community like Carnoustie, what’s the first place you’re going to go if you’re thinking of starting a group?”

Willie Ramsay was 10 years old when The Open rolled through Carnoustie in 1953. Getting Ben Hogan’s autograph spurred his interest in the game even further and he went on to become a fine amateur player, winning the Caledonian Championship as a 21-year-old in 1964. His family roots in the game run deep, too, with his father—known as ‘Basher’ in the area—and brother both piling up a slew of titles and later his nephew as well.

But as Ramsay got older, a lifetime of memories began to dissipate, or, worse, disappear altogether. Other things happened, too. His shoulders slumped, he looked depressed and had become withdrawn. Ramsay faded into the background of life.

That’s when someone told him about the group, which launched in 2015. Within a few months, Ramsay perked up and prior to this year’s Open even won a putting competition against his fellow group members, his smile as wide as the Firth of Fourth.

“That can lift the depression that people have when they get a diagnosis,” Young said. “There’s self-esteem, there’s self-worth, they have a place in the community. They’re not people to be laughed at or made fun of. The stories, I wish we could record every one that comes out. The level of detail I wouldn’t retain, but they do.”

Here’s one the group won’t soon forget: It was a couple of weeks before this year’s Open and head greenskeeper Craig Boath was planning to speak but found himself tied up with last minute preparations for the tournament. So he asked Adam Scott, who had come over early to do his own preparation, to fill in.

The Aussie, who could relate to what the group was going through because it’s something his own mother-in-law is dealing with, was happy to oblige.

“It was quite a fun experience,” Scott said. “There were plenty of laughs and it’s small thing I could do that maybe gets them interested in the game or following someone out here. It was inspiring for me to go and see that. The fact that community gets together is so helpful to them all. It was quite amazing, it really is. There were some laughs and wit and the accents were tough at times but I enjoyed it.”

Less amusing was the time another of the group’s members, Bernie Mortimar, met Hogan. Growing up, Mortimar lived about 200 yards from the first fairway on the Burnside course. His father was also a good player, member of the club and caddied there in retirement. Bernie was hooked, too, spending every waking house on the course when he wasn’t in school. One afternoon a few days before the 1953 Open—the only one that Hogan would play in and ultimately go on to win—he came bounding around the corner from the clubhouse and found himself face to face with the oft-irascible legend. Stunned but not dissuaded, he asked for his autograph.

“There was no one else around,” Mortimar, now 79, recalls. “He grumbled, said no, just dusted me.”

His involvement with the group since joining it two years ago has been more pleasant.

“I’ve met people I used to know and all the work is helping jog my memory,” he said, adding that he’d never seen Carnoustie look so baked out and golden as it was last week. “I enjoy the groups, seeing people on a regular basis and reconnecting with them. I’ve seen a few Opens in my day.”

Most of the group has. Carnoustie has held eight Opens and they’re able to remember most of them now, something that wasn’t always the case.

Other memories hit even closer to home and speak to what the mission is all about. Though the group is made up of all men at the moment—something it hopes to see change—one elderly woman who used to attend the group and needed a walker to get around miraculously turned the clock back one afternoon in front of everyone.

“We encouraged her to come over to the simulator and eventually we got her lined up and got her to hold onto a club,” Young recalled. “She needed two people to support her but then she shrugged us off, stood up straight as a die and must have gone back about 40 years and hit it pure.

“To me, that’s magic.”